- Jo Page
Somebody asked me what I thought about the fire that very nearly destroyed Notre Dame Cathedral, but there is no easy answer. Because once you start talking about the destruction of famous places of worship, the corollary concern arises: what about those who have been killed in places of worship?
These comprise two long categories of destruction, human and inanimate--though for those who worship in religious spaces the edifice itself seems to breathe with life.
If you google "massacres in places of worship" you will find an alphabetized list totaling 63. But these are just attacks from the last twenty years or so. Forget about the rest of history. This is just a partial list.
If you search further you will find a list of the deadliest attacks over the last decade. These include attacks we've probably not heard of--or heard much about. And it includes attacks that outraged us all--but may have become muddled in our brains:
Was the attack on the Sikh Temple, killing 6, in Wisconsin or in Minnesota? (Wisconsin.)
Did Islamic State kill 137 worshippers in Yemen or 50 in Pakistan? (both, one in 2015 and one in 2016.)
Was Devin Kelley, who killed 26 worshippers in Sunderland, Texas in 2017 a copy-cat killer of Dylann Roof who killed 9 African American worshippers in Charleston, South Dakota in 2015? (No, Dylan Roof was a raging racist and Devin Kelley a violent rapist; most of the Texas victims were white.)
Was the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in which 11 people were killed by a gunman spewing anti-Semitic rhetoric before or after the attack on a Roman Catholic church in Jolo, Philippines in which 23 were killed? (It was three months to the day before.)
These, of course, are just recent and religiously motivated attacks, one that have taken place in our lifetimes. We don't even really know a thing about the older ones, the forgotten ones, including the destruction of the entire small town of Oradour-sur-Glane in southwest France where, in 1944, Nazi soldiers took control. The men were packed into barns and sheds for subsequent machine-gunning. One baby was crucified. The other 450 women and children were led into the town's church. Then the church was set afire.
One woman survived. The ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane have been left as they were.
Can we value a sacred building when we know--only in small part--the history of murder that has taken place in many, many sacred buildings, all of them less grand than Notre Dame?
I think we can. And I think we must. Because this is not an either/or issue. It is an issue of ultimate concern. We talk about the loss of life as "the ultimate sacrifice." And we use equally superlative language to describe the meaning of sacred spaces, "God's house" being probably the most common and most colloquial. And you certainly don't have to believe in any kind of God to believe in the sacredness of spaces.
Not every sacred space needs preserving; we must sell the empties and raze the rotting. That is the mundane truth of it. But some sacred places hearken to a greater witness and historicity than others. That, too, is the truth of it.
In murdering people within houses of worship, the sinful and the sacred most savagely, savagely intersect. And in erecting and re-erecting those various and major places of worship for people of all faith traditions, there is a resurrecting witness to the hope of eternal and unending sanctuary. No, we can't make heaven. We can't bring back the lost ones--from any and all ages. But we have stone and wood. We have hands and minds. Heaven can--and will--wait.